My mother would have turned 68 today. I sat in the oncology room this morning a Harvard Vanguard Medical getting my infusion of Remicade, surrounded by patients getting chemotherapy, and I thought of her last days, the nausea, the fear, the grasping for life. I wanted to write something special for her birthday, something that she taught me by simply inhabiting her body but my body is tired after absorbing the potion of chemicals that keep my symptoms at bay. Following her first day of chemo I laid in bed with her, after setting up her daily prescriptions in one of those plastic containers with compartments labeled with the days of the week. We got under the blankets in the apartment she rented above the pizza shop and pretended the world didn't exist. We watched two movies that day, Frida and the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Rabbit Proof Fence was the first one we watched. It was the type of movie that she would like and she did. She was drawn to stories about race, and true stories especially. After Frida ended, I got of bed and began to pack up and ready myself for my ride back to Boston. "Can we watch the Rabbit Proof Fence again?" she said. "You wanna watch it again, right now?" "Yes." In that moment I realized it was not the movie that she wanted but my company, she did not want to be alone. "Of course," I said and put the DVD back in the player. As we were re-introduced to Molly and the mixed-race aboriginal girls that the Australian government had separated from their parents, I saw my mother drift off to sleep. I haven't watched the film since but for her birthday i'll watch it tonight.
Here's a memory of my mother from my childhood, something i'm working on for the memoir:
After lunch she placed a sleeping Jeffery in his carriage and bundled him in blankets. We headed off to Nina's house. Because she didn't drive, we walked everywhere. My mother pushed and the carriage bounced along the quiet and shaded sidewalks of our neighborhood. She strode, lost in thought, beneath a long row of old oaks and weeping willows, while I followed behind, frequently stopping to retie my laces.
“Ma, wait up,” I cried after her. “I have to tie my sneaker.”
My mother stopped and waited by a neighbor’s fence. She adjusted my brother’s blankets and then began to pinch off the tips of stems from a soft-needled hedge. The smell of cut grass had a bewitching effect on her and she would often place the nubs of Yews up to her nose, curl her upper lip to make the branch a piney mustache, inhale deeply. Afterwards she’d break up the spiky leaf between her fingernails, the pieces rained down on the concrete, her fingertips, a green stain.
“You just tied your shoe,” she said.
“I know,” I said fumbling the laces. “It keeps coming undone.”
My mother kneeled down and pulled my laces toward her yanking my body forward. I leaned back against the freshly painted fence to keep my balance. It held me like a long wooden hand. My mother’s smudged fingers tugged at the shoestrings, crossed the loops and then crossed them again. Above us, sparrows and blue jays flew to their nests and the sunrays that fell between the leaves created a golden prism of light.
“Do double knots, like this,” she said. “They won’t come undone.”
With my shoes wrapped tightly around my feet, I brushed off the dirt that had gathered around the knee of my jeans and I skipped along side my mother, grabbing the tips of hedges after she did.
“Ooh, look Andrea there’s a penny.”
I bent to pick up the coin shining brightly on the curb beyond the shelter of trees.
“No, wait,” she said. Her command froze me like a statue. “You have to make a wish first. Penny, Penny give me luck, cuz I’m the fuck who picked you up.”
“Ma!” I said, as she laughed at herself.
She reached down, grabbed the copper coin, Lincoln’s face covered with dirt. She wiped it clean on her jeans and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said.
I put the good luck in my pocket and we continued down a small hill, looked at the same houses we saw every time we visited Nina. We pet the same dogs that always ran to greet us as we passed, and we gave voice to the thoughts in our heads. It was in these times, when everything was calm, that I got to know my mother. Our walks were the beginning of our friendship, when I knew, without really understanding the feeling, that Arlene was the person I would always love most.
My mother was a natural beauty. At twenty-three she wore very little make-up, just eye shadow and mascara to play up her hazel colored eyes, and only on special occasions. She would spend hours getting ready for an evening out, start with a hot bath mixed with baby oil. Shampoo and set her hair in mesh wire rollers. While her hair dried she’d paint her nails with pearl white polish. Her understated style made her more striking somehow in a world where her white skin shone brighter. My brother and I would crowd into the bathroom with her, Jeffery lying on the floor with his blue security blanket and me sitting with my chin on the edge of the tub. Her hands enthralled me, they way they seemed to float across her body rubbing soap on each of her legs, shaving the suds clean to reveal soft smooth skin. Our bathroom, a room that was as sacred as church, as healing as any hospital, was always warm, steamy and filled with the strong scent of Jean Nate body powder. When it was my turn in the tub, I pretended to be her, rubbed soap on my face and around my eyes, shaved my bony and hairless legs with empty matchbook covers that I sneaked into the bathroom.
Her family thought her rebellious for crossing racial barriers. Outside our home people yelled “nigger lover” at her like it was her name. Her rebellion, her ability to stand up for what she believed in, was something that I admired.
On regular days, like the day we visited Aaron, my mother would loosely plait the bottom of her hair making two braids that sat gently over her shoulders and brush on black mascara, cursing the family gene that gave her short lashes. She dressed as a twenty-three old would in 1973, tight knit tops and bell-bottom jeans, suede shoes with chunky heels and laces.
“Ma, do you think Aaron will be okay?” I asked, my arms outstretched like airplane wings as I walked and wobbled on the curb. I liked to pretend that I was walking a tightrope. “Yes, Andrea,” she said looking straight ahead. I leaned to the right, almost fell into the street, my feet meeting heel to toe.
“Be careful,” my mother shouted.
“I got it.” I said, straightening myself up. “Ma,” I said, looking back. “You shoulda saw Aaron’s face.”
“I saw him,” she said.
“And he was screaming, so loud, he looked like he was about to die.”
My mother got quiet. The kind of quiet that told me that something serious was on her mind. The kind of quiet that makes air feel heavy and sets the stage for bad news.
“Your grandmother’s house has past,” she said. “There’s something bad waiting to happen there.”
“Bad, like what?” I asked, now walking beside her.
“I don’t know but years ago, one of your father’s relatives killed his wife in that house. In the attic.”
“Who was it?” I asked. “How did he killed her?”
I was drawn to dark scary characters, so much so that my mother let me stay up late on weekends to watch horror movies with my father. I read mystery novels, devoured stories about ghosts and I was lit up with the idea of finding the identity of my family’s notorious ancestor.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “They said he was a small man. Small, like your father. And they said that he liked to dress nice. Look pretty. Her married this woman. She was a lot younger than him.”
Arlene stopped, took a cigarette out of the soft red package and lit it with a match. “The story is,” she said and inhaled. “That he killed her and left her body in the attic.”
I listened to my mother’s voice, soft and serious. While neighbors milled in their yards and traffic zoomed by, we slowed our pace and conjured a past of unknown people somehow related to us.
“That story makes me think about your father,” she continued, exhaling smoke at me.
“Because I think someday he’s going to kill me.”
Her statement didn’t startle me, not then. I don’t think I really thought about what the words meant at first. I was too interested in the mysterious couple that marked my family for a future death. But as she talked on, I began to think about her being gone.
“History repeats itself, Andrea. And killing runs in this family.”
I pushed my hand through a chain link fence, let a grey-haired dog lick my palm, wiped my hand on my jeans.
“I’m telling you,” she said, her head lowered, “that house is filled with pain and death.”
At seven years old I was also more interested in the man who had killed than I was his victim. In these situations, it’s the person who acts that we see, not the one acted upon. And no matter how disturbing their actions, they are the ones that intrigue us. Because there is language in behavior, because violence is frantic, explosive, it speaks and warns us about ourselves. And we want to understand, ourselves, and the frantic, explosive people in our lives, so that we can fix what needs fixing. Don’t we?
I never found out who the man was who killed his wife in the attic. He remained an angry shadow in my imagination, an idea on a page. I don’t know if he was really a relative. I don’t even know if the story that was passed around my family, like a bad cold, was true.
My family makes its own truth.
My mother believed it. I could hear it in her voice, a soft surrender that said she accepted an inevitable fate. And she said it with such conviction and so often that I would come to believe. The thought of her dying became the thing that crawled inside of me, tightened my insides until I couldn’t breathe. It was my first real fear, her death and by effect, mine.
Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative non-fiction. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.